This week, 150 prominent writers and academics put their names to a Letter on Justice and Open Debate, published in Harper’s Magazine. The letter bemoaned what the writers felt was a growing illiberalism in public discourse. It was a curious and strangely unenlightening contribution to an ongoing discussion about “cancel culture”, perhaps prompted by a storm that has been building against one of the letter’s signatories, JK Rowling.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I first started to see tweets about JK Rowling’s stance on trans people. Many of the people I follow on Twitter were saying that anyone who follows them, shouldn’t follow JK Rowling. I didn’t like that message – I’ll make my own decisions about who I follow, thank you. But I was curious about what it was she had said that had made a growing group of people so hurt and angry, so I started reading – what she had said, how it made others feel, what others were writing.
If you haven’t followed, in a nutshell, the story is this. JK Rowling thinks trans women are not women. Only “women” are women. When trans people on Twitter challenged her about this, she doubled down, then tripled down, and then hunkered down in her position – sharing her thoughts with the more than 14 million people who follow her on Twitter. As she doubled down, so the voices against her got even louder, and there were three clear messages: first, JK Rowling is so very, utterly wrong; second, by using her platform and her fame to hurt trans people, she is worthy of our contempt; and third, because of this, people sympathetic to the trans cause should no longer appreciate anything about JK Rowling, or her writing. She is dead to us.
And this is what some are calling cancel culture. It usually plays out as the left vs the left. Because progressives are so passionate about progression, anything that holds progress back is bad. Barack Obama recently spoke out against cancel culture, warning that progressives need to be more united – if we seek purity from within our ranks, we only hurt ourselves, and we diminish our movement. No single individual is perfect, and we need to be more tolerant and give people a break. To quote Sting: the search for perfection is all very well – but to look for heaven is to live here in hell.
So yes, there are some things about cancel culture that bother me. Cancel culture often plays out as a pile on – that other social media phenomenon that is brutal, cruel, damaging for the victim and most often disproportionate to the crime.
I worry about pile-ons. I try very hard not to participate in them, even when I agree with their premise. People deserve compassion, even when they have failed. I am not perfect, and I never wish anyone (myself included) to be held to such a standard.
But sometimes in our world the pile-on has a place. Think about Amy Cooper, the woman in New York’s Central Park, who thought her whiteness created a shield against ever being found to be in the wrong, and whose hideous sense of entitlement was caught on camera by a man whose life she put in danger through her sheer, ugly caucasity. When the pile on ensued, she lost her job, and is now being charged with making a false complaint to police. Interestingly, Christian Cooper, the man she threatened, has said that although he was glad she was held accountable, he felt the response and negative consequences for her had been too great, and he would not participate in bringing charges against her; he felt the pile on had gone far enough.
The same day that Amy Cooper was calling the police on Christian Cooper, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis – a tragedy that could as easily have happened to Christian Cooper, had Amy had succeeded in getting the police to come when she called. If the world hadn’t seen so clearly through Amy Cooper the ugly face of every day, ordinary, middle class white supremacy and racism – if we hadn’t piled on, to ensure that video went viral – would the voices raised against the killing of George Floyd – just one of tragically many black men and women killed by police in America and around the world – have been as loud, as certain, as diverse and as sustained? Sometimes a pile on is not a pile on, but the voice of the people, rising up for change.
So back to JK Rowling. Surely not the same as Amy Cooper. Yet they are two white women, afraid and threatened for different reasons, and each so wrong in her own way.
For Rowling, her starting point was her feminism. And as a woman I understand this starting point. As women in mid-life we have been through so much, that men do not have to go through, in a way that is too often invisible. We can be so angry about the patriarchy, and the harm it does to women every day, that we carry our feminism before us in both hands.
But stop and think. If this is our experience, and our pain, as white women living in relative privilege, with considerable access to power – what is it like for others with less power? For people of colour? For women of colour? For trans people?
And if these people raise their voices – even if it is against us – is it our task to argue? Is our right to be right so crucial? Or might we be able – or even obliged – to be quiet and listen?
So yes, I have finally stopped following JK Rowling on Twitter. Not because she said something I don’t agree with, or because people I respect and often agree with said I should. But because her insistence on her own rightness made her tedious, and her unwillingness to check her privilege and listen to other voices made her insupportable to me.
The so-called Letter on Justice and Open Debate came from powerful voices, who have access to significant platforms and who could be using their power for good. Many of them often do. Some of them are heroes of mine. I don’t disagree with them about the risks of the pile on, and the hurt it can cause. I do agree that sometimes it’s hard to have to be careful with our words and sometimes it’s scary to think that our progressive friends might find us wanting, and criticise us for our words and beliefs.
But every human carries power, and it is up to each of us to use our power for good. And as the creator of a wizarding world, surely JK Rowling could see that the more power we have, the greater our obligation to wield it well.
(Picture credit, Owen Humphrey, PA Wire)